Doctrine of necessity can immunize local governments from takings claims, but maybe not in this case

by Hannah Dankbar

Irwin v. City of Minot
North Dakota Supreme Court, March 24, 2015

Robert and Donna Irwin own 8.12 acres in Ward County, North Dakota. In 2011 the Souris River was flooding part of Ward County, which resulted in the City of Minot deciding to construct emergency earthen dikes along municipal streets. The City hired a contractor to gather clay to build a dike from Darrell Sedevie, the Irwins’ neighbor. The City contracted with Sedevie for removal of the clay, and paid sixty-five cents per cubic yard for 20,000 cubic yards of clay. The contractors entered the Irwins’ land to access the Sedevie property, removed an undetermined amount of clay and topsoil from both the Sedevie and Irwin properties, and used the materials to construct the emergency dike. Damage to the Irwins’ property included destruction of a cement slab, barn, damage to a fence, and destruction of native prairie grassland. The City did not contract, obtain permission, or pay compensation to the Irwins for removal of the clay from their property.

The Irwins filed a complaint of inverse condemnation against the City, citing Article I Section 16 of the North Dakota Constitution (the state Constitution’s Takings Clause). The Irwins argued that the City took deliberate action to remove soil and damage the property, the clay was removed for public use, the removal of the clay was the proximate cause of the damage to their property, and any defense that the City was acting under its police power or is protected from suit through sovereign immunity is inapplicable. The City moved for summary judgment to dismiss the claim. The City argued that the contractor’s removal of the clay was an exercise of its police power to act in a sudden emergency and did not constitute a taking under eminent domain. The City also argued it was not authorized to compensate the Irwins as a matter of law in exercising its police powers, and is statutorily immune from liability for damages resulting from the contractor’s actions.  The District Court found that the City acted under its police power authority during an emergency and not under its eminent domain authority, and therefore was not responsible for compensating the Irwins.

In North Dakota, when the state takes or damages private property without first compensating the owner through eminent domain, the property owner has to take the initiative by raising a claim of inverse condemnation. To establish an inverse condemnation claim, a property owner must prove a public entity took or damaged the owner’s property for a public use and the public use was the proximate cause of the takings or damages.  Under common law, however, a public entity can exercise a taking without compensating the owner when acting under police powers.  The “doctrine of necessity” operates to protect states from liability “when there is an imminent danger and an actual emergency giving rise to actual necessity.” Under North Dakota legal doctrine, “[t]he State or the municipality may, in the exercise of police power, exact of property owners uncompensated submission of their property in the protection of public health, safety, or morals, but such use or injury of private property under the police power is uncompensated in this State only where such power is exercised to meet sudden emergencies.”

In this instance, the record included evidence that before the flood the City contracted with property owners for clay to construct the dikes, and also that clay was available at other locations around the city.  Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, a question of fact exists as to whether the imminent danger facing the City gave rise to an actual necessity to take the Irwins’ property. In this case, the North Dakota Supreme Court determined that the district court erred in ordering summary judgment.





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